Renaming God in Order to Free the World

[Posted January 10, 2007: This word of Torah is dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, may the memory of this tzaddik ("upright person, justice-worker") continue to bless us. He was born on January 11, 1907. I had originally intended to send out this biblical / contemporary comment tomorrow, but it looks as if we will need that day to campaign against the cockamamie plan to send more American soldiers to Iraq. In this way we can ACT in Heschel's memory -- for he stood alongside Martin Luther King to oppose the Vietnam War.]

This coming Shabbat, we enter "Sefer Sh'mot," the Book of Names. We hear the names of the Israelites who entered Mitzrayyim (the Tight and Narrow Place, Egypt); the names of life-loving midwives; the name of Moses; the very name of God, Whose Name changes before our very eyes.

In the first portion of the book, we meet the names of two midwives, Shifra and Puah, birthgivers who "give birth" not only to babies but also to a whole life-path -- nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience -- when they face murderous decrees of Pharaoh.

And we meet the naming of Moses, whose name straddles Egyptian and Hebrew as did his life.

In Egyptian, "Moses" means "Son of," as in the pharaohs Rameses, "Son of the god Ra," and Thutmose, "Son of the god Thoth." Thus Moses is simply "Son of - -- and a blank." "Son of - who knows?"

Appropriate enough for this boy who is reborn from the Nile, who has two or three mothers and perhaps three fathers (his biological father Amram, his protector Pharaoh, and his father-in-law Yitro, the only one who really guides and fathers him), who lives between two worlds, and whose Egyptian rescuer is said to tweak his name in mistaken Hebrew: She who drew him forth from the water says "Moses" means "the one who is drawn forth," but it actually means "the one who will draw forth" -- as he does draw forth the people from slavery.

So we begin to realize how crucial naming and renaming can be -- and then we also meet new Names of God. God's name change in the midst of Moses' experience at the Burning Bush is crucially connected with Moses' ability to begin liberating the people from slavery. So we see there is an intimate connection between freeing people, resisting Pharaoh, and "renaming" God - that is, coming to a deeply new understanding of the world.

And this coming Shabbat in our own lives will bring together the centennial birthday and the yohrzeit (death-anniversary) of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel with the permanent birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King. Just as in their deaths these dates strongly connect them, in their lives they were deeply connected in nonviolent resistance to the "pharaohs" of racism and war; and their lives betokened a new turning in the histories of Judaism and Christianity -- perhaps a new turning in how we understand God.

This year especially, we meet them in the midst of war -- a war that Dr. King prophesied on April 4, 1967, exactly a year before his death, with Rabbi Heschel at his side, in a gathering of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. He warned that if America failed to address the deadly triplets of racism, militarism, and materialism, then there would need to be a Clergy and Laity Concerned About -- another war. And here we are.

When Moses at the Burning Bush asks the name of the God Who is sending him to proclaim freedom, the old names seem inadequate. Two new Names come forth: "YHWH," the vowel-less letters that can only be "pronounced" by breathing; and "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh," which means "I Will Be Who I Will Be."

This Name that encodes possibility, transformation, was too much for the translators of the Bible into the King James version. They mistranslated this clearly future-tense Hebrew into "I Am What I Am," unchanging. Perhaps this committee appointed by a king could not bear to say the Name of freedom, change, the overthrow of a Pharaoh.

When we need to rename God, we can realize that we are in a crisis of history and civilization.

Indeed, there are at such moments likely to be fierce battles between those who want to address God and understand the world in new categories, and those who are satisfied: "Give me the old-time religion; it was good enough for Grandpa, it's good enough for me."

Today, many people find some of the old ways of naming God - King of the Universe, Lord, Judge, for example - no longer adequate or honest.

Through this metaphor, we are defining ourselves as subjects, slaves, to a ruler whose powers we have no way to exercise or challenge.

But in a generation when human beings can destroy life on this planet, can splice DNA to create species as radically new as the spider-goat, can overthrow Pharaohs - all the powers we once located in a ruler far beyond us - it no longer seems truthful to invoke such metaphors.

And many women, with some men, have pointed out that the old metaphors for God are overwhelmingly and pointedly masculine, bespeaking men's spiritual experience but rarely women's.

What then? Some people have poured scorn on the whole enterprise, rejecting the God-word, perhaps identifying "biological evolution" or "the historical process" as the only sources of creativity and justice. We might say that those become new names of God. Few call them that because they seem -- or their proponents claim -- they are discoverable, reducible, weigh-able. They do not trail clouds of Mystery.

Others have renamed God as the "Eternal Thou" (Buber), "the Power that draws us toward salvation" (Kaplan), "the Wellspring of Life" (Falk), "the Ground of Being" (Tillich), perhaps "the Web of Relationship" (some feminists). I usually speak in and through and to "Yahh," the "Breath of life, the Breathing-spirit of the world" (ru'akh ha'olam).

So here we are again, facing Pharaohs that bestride like a colossus the earth they have narrowed - brazen-faced and stony-hearted, stamping under foot the growth from grass-roots of change and possibility and freedom. Who are our midwives, what Name can beckon us to grow?

Shalom, salaam, peace --

Torah Portions: